In 2004, a panel comprising 500 of Britain's most esteemed artists, critics and historians voted Marcel Duchamp's Fountain the most influential artwork of the 20th century. Created for the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Fountain was a urinal – a common plumbing fixture purchased from a wholesaler in New York City – signed by Duchamp with the pseudonym "R. Mutt" and rotated so that it lay on its back. A porcelain bowl designed to collect piss was recognized as the single-most important contribution to art in the past century. Ahead of Picasso, ahead of Pollock. Matisse didn't even make the list. Among the world's aesthetes, there were scattered cries of foul. And just as it had in 1917, Fountain ignited a debate over the meaning of art.
That Fountain would inspire objection is to be expected. After all, Duchamp had no hand in the creation of the object itself. But what he did do is re-contextualize it. He presented the urinal in a way that forced the viewer to consider it differently, thus shifting the burden of understanding from the artist to the observer. It was an affront to tradition, an assault on paradigm. And with the creation of Fountain, Duchamp accomplished one of two things – he either gave birth to a new kind of meaning or obliterated the need for meaning in art entirely. But whichever door it was that Duchamp kicked open, one thing is clear – Andy Warhol sashayed right through.
If Duchamp was challenging our perceptions, Warhol was challenging our depth. Prompting us not to delve deeper, but to worship the surface. When he began to make waves in the New York art scene with silk-screen images appropriated from mass culture, Warhol was simultaneously heralded as a genius and a fraud. The acolytes of progress saw him as a great leap forward – as someone who had the courage and vision to not only embrace the vulgarity of modern culture, but to elevate it. To sign it and call it art. Warhol's critics saw a gimmick. A cheap trick. A charlatan passing off mass produced novelty as original works of art. And as his career wore on, the debate surrounding Warhol never subsided. His appropriation, his factory, his dubious means of production … Marilyn, car crashes, 50 Campbell soup cans … They all left people asking – is it art or is it crap? Is it meaningless or is it profound? Warhol's work inspired a litany of questions that were never answered in the artist's lifetime. And after his death due to complications following gall bladder surgery in 1987, the questions became irrelevant. One of Warhol's most famous aphorisms proved true.
Death means a lot of money, honey. Death can really make you look like a star.
In death, any doubt shrouding the importance of Warhol's body of work dissipated. Though the errant dissenter may still exist in our midst, Warhol enjoys almost universal recognition as one of the most important figures in the history of art. Prints that were selling for peanuts in the artist's lifetime are now fetching hundreds of thousands –if not more – at auction. His Marilyn diptych, a repetitious silk-screen of the starlet's iconic countenance, was deemed "the Mona Lisa of our time" by Jose Mugrabi, Warhol's most prolific collector. And although Mugrabi's opinion is arguably biased, the same British panel that ranked Fountain number one placed Marilyn at number three. But perhaps the most compelling argument for Warhol's cemented status is a recent poll conducted for the BBC in which he beat out Michelangelo for the title of the greatest Western artist of all time. Could a Campbell's soup can really be the Sistine ceiling of our age? And if Warhol and his appropriated imagery represent the apex of artistic achievement, what does that say about modern culture's capacity for meaning?
"Art has changed over time," says AK47, a London-based ‘art terrorist' famous for kidnapping Banksy's The Drinker from a public square in 2004. "We're looking at things more simply now. We live in a fast world and we don't always have the time to soak it all in." Speaking by phone in a raspy Yorkshire accent, AK47 explains that Warhol was the first to really embrace the advertising mentality which has come to define our culture and shape our understanding of art. "That doesn't mean that art is shallow," he explains, "it's just different."
"When punk rock first broke in the UK," he continues, "people said it was the end of music. They said it was just noise. Now the Sex Pistols are a major reason why music and culture are what they are today. It's the same thing with art."
This ad is from the back cover of the totally vacuous Andy is 80! special issue of Interview, June/July 2008.
When British artist Tracey Emin was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999, she caused considerable uproar by displaying her installation piece My Bed at the Turner exhibition. Removed from her bedroom after a days-long bout of suicidal thinking, My Bed is – literally – Emin's bed, awash in the physical manifestations of emotional unrest. Used condoms, empty vodka bottles and urine-tinged sheets all serve to offer the observer a voyeuristic glimpse into the artist's wounded psyche. Or, to look at it another way, its just a fucking bed. A dirty bed, but a bed nonetheless.
When asked to reflect on his Campbell's soup can series, Warhol once said "I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing and the soup can was it." There's quite a bit of difference between nothing and the essence of nothing. One is the mere absence of substance while the other is a much more profound metaphysical contemplation. So when considering meaning in art, we have to ask ourselves – how much we are willing to see? How much of the burden of understanding we are willing to bear? Do we want to see a soup can or do we want to see a meditation on nihilism? Do we want to see a dirty bed or do we want to see the raw, gaping wound that is the artist's life? Do we want to see a urinal or do we want to see a Fountain?
Takashi Murakami, a Japanese multi-media artist commonly hailed as the Andy Warhol of the East, has made a veritable mint churning out cartoonish, fiberglass sculpture from his very own Tokyo-based factory. Employing production methods that would put Warhol to shame, Murakami is one among a generation of artists (Jeff Koons comes to mind) who often have no hand in the physical creation of their work. Instead, assistants working in the manner of an assembly line produce pieces according to the artist's specifications. When I first came across Murakami, he struck me as the perfect example of capitalism run amok in modern art. The epitome of art as a highly synthetic product – created only to feed fame and generate profit. But then I read an interview in which Murakami, describing the nature of his work, said simply this:
I express hopelessness.
Suddenly his art didn't mean what I thought it did.
Despite all of the profundity surrounding modern art, we surely can't allow ourselves to become too awestruck by the artists' professed intentions. Considering Warhol's ability to manipulate his image in the media, its certainly possible that he was more concerned with producing a good sound bite than in painting the essence of nothingness. And Murakami may very well be less interested in expressing hopelessness than in mitigating his staggering financial success with a dash of existential despair. But what value is there to be found in speculating as to the artist's true intentions? Whether they mean to do it or not, Warhol and the generation of artists that has succeeded him are the ideal ambassadors for the age in which we live.
Artists have always held a mirror to the face of society, showing us what we have become. No matter what he actually saw in the soup cans, by elevating them to the level of art, Warhol managed to encapsulate the increasing emptiness of modern existence. Whether he was commenting on that emptiness or contributing it is a question we'll never answer. And whether consciously or not, Warhol was the first to see that humanity was spiraling into a vacuum of self-obsession – one where brand names and fleeting fame would exist as muse. In that way, Warhol was profoundly relevant – maybe even more so than Michelangelo. Warhol was Zarathustra on the mountaintop, a herald of the coming nothingness. The first to say, whether intentionally or not – if you want more meaningful art, build a more meaningful world.